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Discuss psychological explanations of schizophrenia (24 marks)
A major sociocultural explanation of schizophrenia is the occurrence of stressful life events. Certain
stressors, such as the loss of a close relative, may trigger the disorder because high levels of
physiological arousal associated with the neurotransmitter changes are thought to be involved.
This is supported by Brown and Birley who found that 50% of patients with schizophrenia had
experienced at least one major life event in the last 3 weeks prior to their schizophrenic episode,
whereas only 12% had experienced a life event in the 9 weeks prior to that; a healthy control sample
reported low and unchanging levels of life events over the same period, suggesting that the life
events triggered the relapse.
However, methodological issues may question the findings of Brown and Birley making it less likely
to support life events as a credible explanation because the findings were based on the patients'
retrospective recall which is never truly objective and often altered by reconstructed memory or
their schizophrenic episode, so it's possible that the research is low in internal validity because it
doesn't measure what it claims to.
In addition, Brown and Birley's research suggesting a link between life events and the onset of
schizophrenia is only correlational because it doesn't distinguish between whether the life events
preceded schizophrenia or whether they are a consequence of the disorder, making it hard to
establish cause and effect between the two variables; as a result prospective research is needed to
better understand the direction of effect which would heighten the validity and reinforce the
sociocultural explanation of schizophrenia.
To test whether life events are a cause or effect, Hirsch et al (1996) carried out a prospective study
checking the life events experienced in a year. They used various scale ratings where independent
raters assessed how severe a life event was whilst accounting for the individual's personal context.
They found a 23% risk of patients having a relapse during the 1 year period due to life events, and
the risk was 41% for patients who had twice the average number of life events.
These findings thus contradict Brown and Birley as they did not find that life events needed to
immediately precede a schizophrenic episode, therefore making the sociocultural explanation an
incomplete psychological explanation of schizophrenia.
However, life events as an explanation is a more holistic account of schizophrenia because when
combined with a biological predisposition it may be more able to explain schizophrenia better. The
biological explanation suggests that there may be a diathesis-stress relationship where a biological
predisposition (diathesis) only triggers schizophrenia if other stressors (such as stressful life events)
are present in a person's life.
For instance, Tienari et al (1994) used 164 Finnish adoptees whose biological mothers had been
diagnosed with schizophrenia and found that 7% had received the same diagnosis as opposed to 2%
in a control group. However this only emerged in situations where the adopted family was rated as
`disturbed' which counts as the appropriate stressor. Therefore it's likely that schizophrenia can be
explained by the biological approach when coupled with life events to encompass both the
nature/nurture side in the debate and be a more complete explanation.
Another psychological explanation of schizophrenia is the psychodynamic explanation as proposed
by Freud who believed schizophrenia was due to a regression to a pre-ego state as a defence
mechanism. Freud argued that if a schizophrenic's parents were cold and uncaring, then the child may
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As a result, schizophrenia is seen as an infantile state which is reflected in its
symptoms such as delusions of grandeur which reflects this primitive condition.
The main issue of Freud's psychodynamic explanation is that it's unfalisifiable, making it impossible to
test its credibility as an explanation. The psychodynamic approach is not objective and based on
Freud's subjective opinions; therefore it lacks principal features of science which doesn't convincingly
explain schizophrenia when compared to more scientific explanations, such as the biological neural
explanation of schizophrenia.…read more